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  • « Learning from People with Bad Theology | Main | Images of the Savior (4 – His Baptism) »

    David Wells on "Churchless Christianity"

    "...This attitude which diminishes the significance of being in church and which will not tolerate any inconvenience has had a strange incarnation overseas, if I can use that word. American missiologists like Ralph Winter have been strenuously advocating “churchless Christianity” as a new and exciting strategy. Their thought is that believers in other religious contexts need not separate themselves from those contexts but can remain in them as private believers, thereby preserving themselves from any kind of harm. This, of course, is easier to do in a Hindu context in which one is allowed to choose one’s own god from among the many that are worshipped. Christians, quietly and privately, are simply choosing to worship Jesus and ignoring the other gods and goddesses in the temple. They are never baptized, never make a public declaration of their faith, and never become part of a church. This arrangement is, of course, much harder to carry off in Islam. Nevertheless, Winter and others now estimate that there are millions of these “churchless” believers concealed in other religions. And is this not where American evangelicalism is headed? In fact, there are already millions of believers concealed in their own living rooms whose only “church” experience is what is had from one of the television preachers. Is it really a coincidence, then, that it is American evangelicals who are energetically arguing for the wisdom of a comparable strategy in the mission field in respect to their religious contexts? I think not!

    Here we have an unholy alliance between raw pragmatism, a Christianity without doctrinal shape, one that in fact separates between having Christ as savior and Christ as Lord (an option that the N.T. never holds out to us!), and a lost understanding of the necessary role which the local church should have.

    If we would but read our Bibles from the beginning, we would notice that from the beginning there was always an inescapable corporate dimension to believing. There were never “private” believers in Israel, nor should there be today. The reason is that there are vital aspects of the Christian experience which simply cannot be had alone, disconnected from the people of God.

    The language of koinonia, does not speak to how people feel (which is the way evangelicals typically use it—“we had great fellowship last night!”), but to what is held in COMMON. It is used, for example, of a commonly owned business or property. The joint owners do not need to have warm feelings about each other in order to be joined in a common enterprise. And though warm feelings are good in the church, they are actually not at its center—I know that that is a shocking thing to say! At its center, though, is the reality of God (as Carl says), whose redeeming action in Christ on the Cross is what both unites believers and diminishes the importance of their private circumstances, social experiences, generational location, and personal preferences. (And this ,as Ligon notes, is what Reformed theology has been about at its best).

    It really is no surprise that when the Holy Spirit falls in the Book of Acts (in chapters 2, 4, 10, and 19), it is not in the privacy of people’s homes, but in public, the last two perhaps signaling the acceptance of Gentiles on the same grounds as Jews. Christianity was not carried out only in private because its truth claims were and are public as Paul made clear to Agrippa. And the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation are letters to CHURCHES and when the mistakes and errors of these churches were not corrected, the historical record shows that they disappeared as CHURCHES. When Paul writes, as he does in I Cor. 3, of “wood, hay, straw” he is not writing, as most evangelicals seem to think, of individuals though what he says there has a derivative application to individuals, but he is talking about CHURCHES. That passage is all about the building of the local church and many there are today that are wood, hay, and straw!

    What I think we can say with certainty is that we all have to maintain a twofold relation to the Holy Spirit: one part of that is personal and the other is corporate as part of the local church. Churches can, in fact, lose their existence even while the Christians in them are preserved from losing their salvation. Preserving a church’s existence, and that kind of existence which is blessed of God, is something that has to be worked at—and not simply by the minister. And if what I have said is true, then those who diminish the work of the local church or diminish their involvement in it, actually set themselves against the will of God and of necessity impoverish themselves."

    - David Wells From Reformation 21

    Posted by John on August 15, 2006 10:24 AM


    What better time or place to practice churchless Christianity than 1st & 2nd century Rome? How many Christians might have escaped persecution and death if they'd only kept quiet about worshiping Jesus among the many gods of the empire? If that were a biblical option, you'd think they would have jumped on it....

    I realize this isn't exactly the point of this post (which I have no arguments with), but speaking of "churchless," what does one do when he can't find a decent reformed church in his area? Two years ago God graciously led me out of the seeker-style church thing, and only within the last year have I been exposed to the doctrines of God's true grace and sovereignty, which I am embracing. But let's face it - this isn't "popular." There are only two reformed Baptist churches within a 20-mile radius of where I live, which I have visited, but I'm not sure if either of them are where I'm to be. What do you do when there's no place to go, or in my case, have only a couple options? One of these didn't "fit" me and my family at all, and the other might be a possibility, but it might not. I know God will guide in it all. Do I just leave it at that?

    "Where two or more are gathered . . . ." comes to mind.

    It seems unlikely that "underground" Christians would not eventually, irresistably gravitate into clusters. I can't imagine a grape isolated from such a cluster wouldn't, over time, not become severed from the vine as well.

    However, following the Regulative Principle, it doesn't seem that needlessly exposing or flaunting your existence is commanded.


    Thanks for your comment. The issue is not that such a phenomena exists naturally, but that several branches of the church are promoting churchless Christianity, both on the missions field and in some stateside emergent communities. This plainly goes against God's will (as revealed in Scripture) which is to establish local bodies of believers who have teaching elders. (Acts 11:30; 15:2l, 14:23, 20:17; Titus 1:5).

    No one is here promoting the flaunting of their Christianity but we are also not promoting the hiding of our light under a barrel, while still attending mosques pretending outwardly we are giving the false impression that we are not believers like everyone else.

    Churchless Baptist: Greetings in the name of our Savior.

    what city/town do you live in?

    All - I think the idea of a "churchless Christianity" will become more popular in the U.S. over the coming twenty years. This may result in committed, conservative Reformed church members joining the Roman Catholic Church. Born and raised Christian Reformed, I have studied and experienced Roman Catholicism and found it to be suprising closer to Calvinism than most evangelical churches. Over years of study, most of my stereotypes concerning Catholic beliefs have been corrected. I'm not Roman Catholic, but I do think many protestants will join the Roman Catholic Church to find shelter and relief from the constant divisions of Protestant churches.

    Another thought: If we use democracy as our guide, most Protestant churches will debate, divide and continue to get weaker. The fashionable "mega-churches" are now considered leaders of protestant theology. Most churches want to emulate these huge place of worship. We have lost all appriciation for theology - to the point we allow teenagers through "young peoples" groups to point the church in its direction. Protestant churches are living for today, not tomorrow. Many members are convinced that we are in "the last days," so they think theology and the role of the Church is moot. This reflects our ignorance regarding history and Christian theology. The Reformed churches will become so small, they will be insignificant in the Christian world. If Reformed members aren't ready to re-join other like-minded Reformed churches, the Reformed Church worldwide will cease to exist in 25 years. Are we separatist or reformers?


    The comments above that suggest many protestants will be joining the Catholic church to find shelter and relief from the constant division of protestant churches is nonsense. But not as much nonsense as stating that Roman Catholocism is closer to Calvinism than most evangelical churches. I'm not sure if it is a lack of understanding of Calvinism or Roman Catholicism that leads to this conclusion. The whole point of the reformation was to reject unity under the head of a false teacher and group of leaders who refused to submit to scripture, and instead to seek unity under Christ and His authority revealed in scripture. Unity for the sake of unity is not what the Christian desires. The Christian desires unity under the living and true God, who is Christ. The Roman Catholic church doesn't offer this, but instead offers a christian label under the head of the "Church".
    I do desire a reformation from within the Catholic church, but it will not happen from outside-in.
    If you want to see changes occur within the evangelical framework of churches, which I do, let us "give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhortation and teaching....Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persever in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you."


    There seems to be some kind of a connection between Roman Catholicism and certain branches of Postmillenial Reconstructionism. Roman Catholic-like errors has popped up in this movement.

    I am an institution-less Christian because the church institution is a business for profit and is in the business of bringing in people to harvest money to pay salaried pastors, priests and staff.

    Of course the church leadership is going to preach and twist the bible to keep people trapped in church through lies and manipulation and tell them a person can't be a real Christian outside the institution.

    I am a Christian because God made me one and I have His Spirit in my heart. Jesus is Lord no matter where I am. Christianity has nothing to do with works or where I choose to spend my time or who I spend it with or whether I spend any time in a Christian assebled group at all.

    Membership is unbiblical and there is nothing in scripture about manditory attendence. Jesus Christ made me free and I refuse to ever be enslaved to another church institution again. I wish people would quit feeding that whore the money she needs to survive. Without money, the church institution will die but we Christian will live on.

    I doubt Jesus ever meant for His church to be turned into a business for profit where people actually make a career and living out of sucking the hard earned money out of the real saints.

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